Searchers Say 139 Marine Graves Found

November 25, 2008

Military.com| by Bryant Jordan

The bullets were still flying in late November 1943 as Navy Sea-bees worked to convert parts of a blood-drenched Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands into a base to fly in troops and supplies for the continuing "Island Hopping" campaign waged by U.S. Marines.

In the chaos, rows of markers and crosses designating the graves of fallen Marines were moved aside and were eventually forgotten.

At the end of World War II, when the Army returned to recover the bodies of American dead on the island, it would find fewer than half of those records claimed were buried there.

 Related Newsreel: The Battle of Tarawa

But in late November, two private companies announced they had found the final resting places of 139 missing Tarawa Marines, with Mark Noah, head of Florida-based History Flight organization, calling the discovery "the largest in the history of the American armed forces."

With added support from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, The Baddour Foundation, private individuals and History Flight board members the recovery brought together a team of professional researchers, historians and ground penetrating radar specialists to find 139 of the 541 missing Marines from the battle of Tarawa, organizers say.

Ted Darcy, a retired Marine whose Massachusetts-based WFI Research Group also worked on the Tarawa effort, said they are in the midst of compiling all the research data gained from the effort.

"Once we've got our report all written up we'll turn it over to [the Pentagon]. They will get the bodies, they do the repatriation," he said.

Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA Personnel Office, said the DoD is interested in studying the report, but declined to comment further until the report has been examined.

"They have not disturbed anything [at the investigated sites], they've not dug up any remains," he said of Noah and Darcy. "What they have done is use ground-penetrating radar to go down and look at the soil."

"Now ground-penetrating radar indicates only one thing -- disturbances [in the soil] -- it does not show an x-ray-type picture of what is down there," Greer added.

Until further investigation is done, he said, it's possible what the radar found "is simply the results of Army Graves Registration units digging there in the 1940s. So, in other words, there may be no remains there at all. They may be gone."

According to Noah and Darcy, the graves were located using a Mala X3M ground penetrating radar with 250 and 500 MHZ antennas and a surveyor-quality Trimble GPS system donated for the research trip.

It's also possible that there are remains at the site, Greer added, and they could be those of Marines, or Japanese soldiers or native islanders.

"The hopeful option is [the report] gives us enough to cause us to send out preliminary teams to that area, to look at it and do our own search," he said. This would include some digging in very small areas, he said, and if the findings are positive "then we'd mount full-scale excavations."

"But it has to be done very methodically on our part, the scientific evidence has to come together," Greer said. And even then, the office would have to weigh the findings and costs against other recovery efforts to which it is already committed.

Darcy told Military.com that he and Noah are "99.9 percent" certain that they have found the missing remains.

"I've been doing this for 20 years," added Darcy, who began his hunt for MIAs after he found the remains of a World War II-era pilot in 1991 while searching for a lost F-6F Hellcat in the dense forests of Hawaii.

The downed pilot, Ensign Harry Warnke, died on a training flight during the war. His remains were recovered 15 years later.